The so-called “sophomore slump” has managed to beleaguer even the most talented of filmmakers, and Rodrigo Cortés is no exception. It isn’t for a lack of trying though, and attempting to top his nerve-shreddingly tense debut Buried – one of 2010’s best films – is a tall order to say the least. While not as, ahem, airtight as his first feature, Red Lights is a film thrilling while you’re watching it, if somewhat suspect upon reflection.
The opening scene to Cortés’ film is worrying, a generic supernatural thriller set-up, as a group of people attempt to make contact with “the other side”. It’s enough to make you think Cortés has already lost it, but this routine opening is intentional, because two of the participants, Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) are debunkers, participating only to disprove the apparently otherworldly activity. The trickery of this scene is only the first of many cards hidden up Cortés’ sleeve, and while they don’t always completely work, Red Lights is an ambitious, intelligent engagement with two stark schools of thought.
It is simply great fun listening to Matheson teaching at the local University, detailing the common feats of trickery and self-deception that occur in faux-paranormal scenarios. Unquestionably Weaver’s best role in years, she is superbly-cast as the forthright skeptic, and her chemistry with Murphy makes them a likable team, in what begins as something of a buddy road movie, before evolving into a creepy psycho-thriller.
After exposing one particularly high-profile faker, the duo – along with a curious student of theirs, Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) – set their sights on taking down the big fish, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a world-famous psychic who has emerged from retirement for one final run of gigs. Cortés builds mystery and suspense superbly around Silver’s iconic status, and Margaret’s own grand weakness, one which makes her apprehensive about approaching the man. Weaver’s sharply-developed character is the film’s emotional lynch-pin, opening a dialogue that riffs on our attitude towards death and a possible life after it. De Niro, meanwhile, is sparingly employed, appearing barely at all in the film’s first half, but with its whip-smart dialogue and thematic intrigue, it does not want for him.
Ironically, it is when De Niro shows up that the film begins to sag, going full-tilt horror and feeling a lot more ordinary in the process; birds fly into windows, and surreal dream sequences pull us closer to the final showdown, but feel like stock genre morsels. Also, Olsen’s character feels incredibly underdeveloped, and her personal relationship with Buckley is glossed over completely, making for one particularly confusing scene.
The bait and switch ending is theoretically brilliant and, given the film’s subject matter, wryly appropriate, but feels rather muddled, rushing through the exposition so fast it seems more amenable to home viewing, with the ability to pore over the bizarre final scene again and again. Evidently, it is a film that necessitates a second viewing, and perhaps then might seem to better snap into place.
Cortés has delivered a follow-up to his debut that lacks the same confidence and coherence, but is a diverting approach to the paranormal thriller schematic, even if its landing is less than smooth. It does little to diminish one’s view of Cortés as a talented, intelligent filmmaker, however, and the performances he coaxes out of the three leads are some of their best work in years. The journey certainly proves more rewarding than the destination, but quite a journey it is.
Red Lights is in cinemas now.